DALLAS — Marc Colombo lowers his bald head and leans his sweaty, 6-foot-8, 318-pound frame toward the microphone, growling to the crowd that the next song will “rip your face off.”
The sometimes scary stage presence of the heavily tattooed guitarist and singer, who is one of three Dallas Cowboys offensive linemen in the heavy metal band Free Reign, is a thing of beauty for the head of the recording company that just signed them.
“They’re big guys — big, ugly, mean guys,” said John Howarth, owner and CEO of Australia’s Riot Entertainment. “You see the press photos and they look intimidating, and that’s the market we want to push into.”
The rest of the lineup is bass player Leonard Davis (6-6, 353 pounds), drummer Cory Procter (6-4, 308) and guitarist Justin Chapman (who looks tiny compared to his NFL bandmates but is about 6 feet tall and 235 pounds).
In a rock ‘n’ roll genre where bands snarl and act intimidating while playing thunderously loud guitars, this 1,200-pound band is built for face-ripping.
During their concert at the House of Blues on Saturday — their second major show and the last one before they turn their full attention to football — the band looked more like seasoned metal-heads than jocks toying with a new hobby.
Colombo shouted to the crowd and moved around with lead-singer swagger, rocking his head violently and throwing out the heavy metal salute (fist with pinky and forefinger extended — which former University of Texas alum Davis probably also intends as the “hook ’em horns” sign). Colombo looked perhaps his most heavy metal-ish when bending over, grabbing the microphone with two hands and delivering guttural screams.
“I get up on stage and no nerves or anything,” he said. “It’s just fun.”
Davis didn’t move around much, mostly nodding his bald head and looking menacing. Procter didn’t look much more gigantic than most drummers because his drum kit is pretty much offensive-lineman sized.
The band says its music is primarily influenced by acts such as Metallica and Killswitch Engage, but that its sound is unique. “We’re heavy. We can lighten it up a bit. We scream a lot,” Colombo said.
Free Reign started with a locker-room conversation between Colombo and Procter last season. Colombo, who played in Chicago bands when he was with the Bears, knew Procter played drums and asked him to jam. They liked what they heard and before long recruited Davis and Chapman, who grew up together in the town of Wortham about 80 miles south of Dallas. Chapman, a longtime local musician, is both lead guitarist and heavy metal coach.
As for the name, Procter says it developed out of a lengthy “Spinal Tap”-caliber discussion with Colombo.
“We’re always talking about taking over the world and world domination and face-ripping metal and good music and stuff,” Procter said. “We were kind of like, we need something to show we’re dominating and have free reign over the land. And we just kind of looked at each other and were like, Free Reign.”
They’re dominating the Cowboys and their fans. About two dozen teammates, including quarterback Tony Romo, showed up for their first big gig. Fans at their shows look more like game-day fans than typical metal customers, with Cowboys hats and jerseys far outnumbering black T-shirts and skull designs.
Plenty of Cowboys fans — who have blamed the Jessica Simpson distraction for Romo’s past on-field failures — posted angry messages about possible inattention when the record deal was announced Tuesday. But fans fretting that this rock ‘n’ roll fantasy will detract from the line’s job needn’t worry, the band says.
“It’s 100 percent football when the season starts,” Colombo said. “A lot of these athletes go play golf in the off-season. We play heavy metal music.”
Next up is the scheduled October release of their five-song EP and touring after the season. Howarth says he’s excited for metal fans to get ahold of the EP and see that there’s some quality music behind the NFL names.
“I looked at them and said, yeah, sure we’re going to get a lot of pub, but I just heard something in the music that tapped into what the kids are into today,” he said.
It all may sound like Free Reign is well on its way to major rock stardom, but the band knows it’s still in the heavy metal minor leagues.
While the House of Blues gig was the biggest yet, there were a lot of empty seats in the 1,600-seat venue. The opening act was a handful of groups appearing as part of the Next American Star Regional Finals Tour — basically a talent show. Free Reign members waited out those acts in a tiny green room that smelled a lot like old cold cuts. Once the show was over, they had to load their own gear into their own trucks.
While they hope to one day have roadies, for now they say they’ll focus on improving as a band — and enjoying the ride.
“I never really imagined this,” Davis said. “I’m kind of amazed.”